Space Travel: Select Legal Issues

 G. S. Sachdeva*

Key words: Dennis Tito – G-factor – Planetary habitation – Pollution – Volenti non fit injuria

Branson and Bezos, in maiden commercial flights of their respective enterprises, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, have ushered in an era of commercial space travel, transportation and tourism. This development offers an opportunity to tariff-paying passengers for a trip of thrill, pleasure, recreation or entertainment. Much of the world clapped at the milestones in pride, exultation and enthusiasm but ‘two’ swallows do not make spring. In order to become a viable operational transportation system with public offer of tariffed-travel service open to all, without demur or discrimination, and with competitive options and choices, space carriers would need to introduce regular space flights with fixed time-schedules. Occasional charters or “Inspiration” flights do not qualify as commercial operations or public service. Further, assured standards of passenger safety are another public concern and need institutionalisation of an integrated system of space traffic management and space situational environment. Thus, it seems a tall order, which as yet fails to fit, though implementable in the near future.

Further, the passengers of these two trips are not the first commercial space travellers. In fact, the very first fare-paying space-passenger was Dennis Tito in 2001, who believably, paid millions of dollars for a genuine space trip arranged by Roscosmos and stayed at the Soviet quarters of ISS for one week. Nevertheless, this oncoming seems obvious and imminent. Even, the cost of ticket per passenger is likely to reduce progressively with competition from Boeing, Space X, Orion Span, Bigelow and others. Hopefully, the tariff may become an economical bargain to fit within common person’s finances and dream.

Commercial operational travel in space may soon expand to space tourism with orbiting resorts for an exhilarating experience, hospitalityon celestial bodies for ‘stay-cationing’ for joy and ego-boost and planetary habitations[1] for permanent emigration. The future scenario limned here is no oneiric vision but a millennial reality. Interested tourists, space enthusiasts and one-way emigrees have already queued up for booking and are only waiting for the opportune time and regular space travel to become operational.

The space carriers are advertising a life-time experience full of excitement and unique pleasures. The promised thrills relate to floating in micro-gravity, honey-mooning in space, a view of the mother earth in cosmic perspective, a spectacle of universe in lumiere splendour and many more. With the anticipation and elation of space travel, a passenger may ignore some attendant problems and subsequent hassles which should be clearly understood before the actual travel. Select responsibilities are discussed here.

A Caveat for Space Passenger

First, bodily health and mental fitness are important. Space travellers, beware! Space travel is no bullock-cart ride nor is the space capsule commodious enough for desired comfort. Therefore, space travel requires the highest standards of physique, mental agility and psychological preparedness for a unique yet a hard trip of endurance. Space travel involves inconvenience of cramped physical spaces with claustrophobic environment which may be difficult to withstand. Further, space travel entails spiralling effect, high velocity impact and repercussions of high G-factor which may cause bodily discomfort, pain in muscles, blood-rushing, etc. Apart from headache or giddiness, vomiting may also occur.[2]

In order to get used to such inconvenient and never-experienced conditions, one may require training in simulator-capsule creating launch parameters and zero-gravity environment for practice in floating techniques and to get ‘habitualised’ to unaccustomed effects of space travel. In the past, a few trainee astronauts have been declared unfit for medical reasons. Similar rejection and refusal for space flight, in medical screening or during training, should be no surprise for fare-paying passengers, nor constitute a cause for litigation.

Second important aspect of personal responsibility pertains to scrutiny of contract for space travel for liability clauses in the event of an injury to or death of the passenger. In such risky and hazardous flights, the commercial carriers tend to contract out most of their liability under legal maxims of volenti non fit injuria or non cogit ad impossibilia or abundanti cautela, and others. The respective meanings of these are that in voluntary acceptance of the known risk, injury is not admissible; that it was humanly impossible to avert the event; that enough care and caution had been taken to avoid the accident. This may need consultation from a lawyer whose professional examination and advice will be worth the effort and expenditure. However, standardisation of the space travel contract may be expected on the lines of the Warsaw Convention, 1929[3], relating to commercial aviation.

Third caveat is that the space passenger would find it well-nigh impossible to gather factual evidence of the accident or negligence of the carrier for the plaint. And in law, it is important to establish a fault, neglect or failing to be entitled to a claim of compensation. In fast moving machines and events, even eye witnesses may falter in recapitulating the precise sequence of events. More so, wreckage is almost always protected and secured by investigation authorities to obviate tampering by vested interests. Therefore, the space contract should include the evidentiary principle of res ipsa loquitur to shift the burden for fool-proof defence on the carrier. This is now an established doctrine in Air Law.

A Word of Caution

The excitement of oncoming space travel is genuine and the operators claim of long queues for sub-orbital flights.Reliable projections estimate that the number of commercial flights may increase from 10-a-year to about 360 annually in a decade. Possibly, with increasing number of space-enthusiasts and competing carriers, these expectations may be surpassed much sooner.

However, scientists subdue this exultation with a serious woe of pollution of the atmosphere by burnt solid fuels from rocket exhausts. Their despondence increases because hybrid fuels, liquid and solid, have also revealed no major drop in the pollution level. The emitted particles, howsoever, small in size and light in weight, tend to stay put, almost in situ, for long periods. In the 1990’s, research was conducted, by Rosenlof with teams from NOAA, NASA and the US Air Force, on pollution by Shuttle launches. Studies revealed presence of chlorine emissions from launch rockets and their chemical reaction showed adverse influence on ozone reserves. Regrettably, there has not been significant break-through in safe fuels, and rockets generating ozone-damaging substances are still in use as work-horses.

It is conceded that the studies conducted so far have been preliminary in scope, limited in time and localised over Florida necessitating more empirical data collection and analysis. Further no such studies seem to have been undertaken by Russia or China, at least not in public domain.Nevertheless, existing results indicate that atmosphere and stratosphere are undergoing alteration in their character and content yielding strong hints at adverse changes in global climate and weather patterns. As a result, the eco-system of total atmosphere seems vulnerable and at risk as revealed by ground reality.

World Meteorological Organisation has already observed widening of the ozone holes and indicated at the possibility of creating new such holes near space-ports.It has, accordingly, declared rockets as a potential concern and future threat to the well-being of mankind. This calls for dedicated research on less-polluting fuel substitutes. May be, tri-propellant engines using kerosene or air-breathing engines can lead to a solution. But engineering history shows that these objectives require incremental development through in-service evolution rather than quantum leaps in technology.

The zeal for the novelty of space-trip and ego-satisfaction at the experience is causing rush for bookings. It is apprehended that competing space carriers, in their effort to harvest early profits, may abnormally escalate the number of launches which could adversely affect the ozone layer. Thus, there is reason for “eco-anxiety” with a shaky validation for the causecelebreof space travel and tourism. Possibly, the economic benefits and multiplier effect of space travel and space hospitality may turn out to be unconscionably high in terms of environmental costs and equally unpredictable in consequences for humanity.

Although, space travel may have to be held accountable for the consequential pollution, yet this development cannot be stalled. We have to find a way to co-exist. Perhaps, one option could be to restrict and regulate launches for commercial space travel in the current decade; and concurrently accelerate research for greater clarity on the flagged adverse impact. It will be wise to act in time before it is too late and beyond redemption because humanity deserves, ergaomnes, clean atmosphere and space environment.


References:

* Adjunct Professor, NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad

[1] For example, Woerner’s Moon Colony or the Mars Village.

[2] This feeling has been experienced by astronauts even in repeated flights.

[3] The Warsaw Convention, 1929 has since been superseded by the Montreal Convention, 1999.